By Cally Guerin

The idea of being able to create a schedule to write a thesis seems pretty obvious, straight forward and achievable. If there are 80,000 words to be written over three years, where’s the problem? Assuming five-day weeks and one month for holidays each year, that makes for 720 work days. That’s just over 110 words per day. So why do doctoral writers struggle to get this done? Clearly, there’s a lot more to it.

When I meet with doctoral candidates who appear to be busy writing, they often disappointedly say they are still working on the task they were doing last week, and the week before, and the week before that. Many start out being very optimistic about how quickly they can write certain sections of the thesis. It seems that there is something here about time management related to habits of writing, and also understanding the size of each writing task.

Those doctoral writers who report feeling that their progress is slow are at a loss when it comes to strategies to speed up. In thinking about how to respond to this, I came across Helen Sword’s recent article in which she reports on the broad range of writing habits described by all sorts of successful academic writers. What becomes immediately clear is that there is not just one time of day, amount of time nor place that works best – for each person it’s different and depends entirely on all sorts of other factors in their lives. Finding out what suits each individual – or adapting to what one’s own life allows – is part of succeeding in this world of doctoral writing.

It is sometimes too easy for supervisors and writing teachers to imagine that PhD candidates have only their thesis to work on, and can devote themselves full time to writing. But of course, many candidates are enrolled part time, they might have (sometimes substantial) work commitments, and many have family responsibilities for children and/or elderly parents – after all, the median age of PhD candidates in Australia is 35, a life stage where much of this family commitment is at its peak. Even those who are relatively free of other work and family responsibilities might have teaching duties, or may be preparing conference presentations or journal articles.

Added to all this, there is a pervasive perception – especially by those who aren’t doing much of it – that writing isn’t really ‘work’ (Murray 2012). This means that families or bosses can sometimes regard writing as less important than their own demands for candidates’ time and attention.

So, all these other commitments and responsibilities mean is that every day is NOT the same, and therefore each of those 720 days of a three-year candidature doesn’t actually allow for the same space for writing. So then, the 110 words per day plan is already breaking down.

But, the thesis does have to get written if the candidate is to get their degree. Keeping a diary to see where the time disappears to can be invaluable. I’ve encouraged participants to record honestly their use of time in the weeks before Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo); this effectively draws attention to what and when writing is disrupted by other responsibilities or commitments.

Armed with accurate information, it is then possible to work around these interruptions. Often we imagine our days being spent differently from what we actually do in reality, unaware of just how much time was really spent on particular tasks. Identifying these distractions is one thing – changing the writer’s reactions is another! Learning to say ‘NO’ is not easy. (An earlier post on RescueTime might help some doctoral writers manage their time a little more effectively.)

Of course, there is no answer to my original question, and writing can take so much longer than one expects. There are days when the writing tasks seem obvious and are quickly laid down in a decent form; on other occasions it takes an age to find a good structure that allows the points of the argument to emerge in a coherent order. One of the challenges for new researchers is to make realistic estimates of how long each writing task will take, and then match that with how much time they have available for the task (Zerubavel has some good advice on pacing writing in The Clockwork Muse, and suggests that it can be encouraging to slightly over-estimate how long tasks will take; then, if the job is completed a little ahead of time, a warm glow of success can be enjoyed).

So, if that planning for 110 words each day isn’t the answer, then would a weekly schedule of writing tasks be more useful? Some days might produce 50 good words, and then another produces 500. And many writers respond well to having some kind of accountability built into their process. I for one find that external deadlines are a very useful way of forcing me to get on with the job!

But one thing is clear: for most doctoral students, the writing is not going to happen if they are not sitting at the desk. Just getting them to the desk is part of the challenge. Have you found some other ways to make this happen?